Stranded cinema: 'Captain Phillips,' 'Gravity' rediscover a genre

When Tom Hanks released "Cast Away" in 2000, he was all alone in more ways than one.

Playing a man stuck for years on a remote island, the Oscar winner was helping to bring back a genre, the so-called stranded film, that hadn't had a major entry in five years (since Hanks' own "Apollo 13").

Beginning Friday, the actor can be seen in another nautically-themed marooned movie, the Somali-hijacking tale "Captain Phillips.” Only this time Hanks' story of isolation has plenty of company.

The stranded film, which Hollywood has returned to intermittently since the form came into its own in the mid-20th century, is back with a vengeance. “Captain Phillips,” directed by Paul Greengrass, is one of nearly a dozen movies this fall -- including Alfonso Cuaron's current hit "Gravity" and an assortment of upcoming releases -- about a person marooned far from where (or who) they want to be.

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Unlike many past iterations, characters in this go-round are fighting not only for their physical survival -- though that’s often the case -- but against emotional, racial and even spiritual forces. The result is a complex spin on a familiar genre, and one that may offer a telling cultural snapshot.

Among the upcoming releases with a clear-cut stranded concept are Steve McQueen's antebellum drama "12 Years a Slave," Spike Lee's action remake "Oldboy," about a man held captive in a motel room for 20 years, and J.C. Chandor’s man-at-sea tale “All Is Lost.”  (These films, it should be said, follow similarly themed movies, such as the shipwrecked drama “Life of Pi” last year and mountain-climber-rescue pic “127 Hours” in 2010.)

More figuratively, the definition of stranded cinema could be expanded to includes tales of spiritual and emotional isolation, in which heroes function as castaways even when they’re surrounded by crowds of people. 

That list: Ben Stiller's loner dramedy "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," Ridley Scott's morality-play thriller "The Counselor," Jason Reitman’s literary drama “Labor Day” (about a woman cut off from the outside world by an escaped convict and her own haunting memories) and Spike Jonze’s piece of techno-whimsy, "Her." 

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Jonze's film, about a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with a digital voice, world-premieres at the New York Film Festival on Saturday before opening, like “Mitty,” on Christmas Day, when the movies will provide a bookend to what might be termed the season of the stranded.

"We are seeing a lot of these," said McQueen thoughtfully when asked of the glut.  "I think with a lot of the news coming at us in newspapers these days, there's a feeling sometimes that we're helpless," he said. "[Stranded] stories like this help us feel like we're not alone.”

McQueen's fact-based movie, due in theaters next Friday, is a novel twist on the marooned movie. Its main character, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is kidnapped in 1841 from his upstate New York home and sold into slavery across a series of Southern plantations, where he spends more than a decade trying to survive so he can make his way back to his family. It’s "Cast Away" with a historical and racial charge.

Stiller's "Mitty," in which he also stars, portrays a timid man isolated by his own fears, trapped in a low-end job at Life magazine (where pictures of men far more accomplished adorn the walls) and cut off from a romantic crush who works down the hall but may as well be a million miles away. Mitty spends his days creating elaborate fantasies much in the way Hanks’ Fed Ex worker Chuck Noland invented an imaginary life for a volleyball in “Cast Away.”

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“I wanted to build a story of a man surrounded by all these people and all these great achievements but who felt disconnected from all of it,” said “Mitty” screenwriter Steven Conrad, who added that he believed the spate of stranded movies spoke to a spiritual crisis of sorts. “My dime-store psychiatry is that there’s less neighborhood, less church, less community, and a lot more time thinking about ourselves,” he said. “It means we’re haunted by incompletion, which is what a lot of these films are really about.”

The idea of a man stranded far from home is as old as Homer’s “Odyssey” and has taken on shapes as unexpected as “Gilligan’s Island.” On the big screen, it dates back at least to the early 1950s, in movies such as John Wayne’s plane-crash picture “Island in the Sky” and Luis Bunuel’s 1954 adaptation of “Robinson Crusoe,” then continued the next decade with Peter Brooks’ take on “Lord of the Flies” and the Gregory Peck-starring space-orbit drama “Marooned."

In recent years, the stranded movie has increasingly come nested in other genres -- as in the 2009 science-fiction tale “Moon” or the 2010 horror picture “Frozen.”

But the genre may be reaching its most complex evolution yet. Many of these new movies are free of back story -- one gets only a brief taste of how Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone character spends her life on Earth in "Gravity," and finds that Robert Redford’s elderly sailor in “All Is Lost,” about a solitary man on a sinking boat in the Indian Ocean, barely speaks. Yet the narratives are imbued with a deep-seated sense of alienation.

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Hanks said he sees in movies such as "Captain Phillips" an expression of a larger social concern.

“It seems as though there is this darkness on the edge of town that’s never gone away. No matter how far you get up or how relatively safe you feel, there’s always this kind of lingering question that’s out there, which is literally, are we going to be OK?” the actor said. "Is our world going to survive?  Are we all going to be able to exist ... in the same brand of security that we’ve been able to have in the past?"

Some filmmakers say their stories have taken on added urgency because of fast-moving technological changes. Citing his movie as a possible representation of “what’s going on in the world today,” Stiller told reporters at the New York Film Festival last week that he sees the isolation of the Mitty character as a symbol of “a world transforming from analog to digital, and what gets left behind with that.”

But pop culture experts don't necessarily agree; they say these movies may be less of a social symptom than a dramatic necessity.

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“It’s so tempting to say that in the 21st century, when everybody is feeling alienated and not seeing other people because they're only interacting with iPads, that that’s why we have all these movies,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University’s SI Newhouse’s School of Communications. "I’m not sure that’s it. I think what we’re seeing is a pullback from the big-stakes effects movies so we can tell these intimate, dramatic stories about one life and one person. What these movies say is that people don’t want large-scale apocalypse stories all the time."

The trend, Thompson noted intriguingly, may be also be part of the aftereffects of television’s “Lost,” which (at least until its finale) made stranded tales sexy and popular again.

If the stranded movies are cathartic and entertaining for the audience -- and judging by the box office so far for "Gravity" and the reviews for "Captain Phillips," they are -- the films offer painful challenges for the actors. Performers must work for days at a time not only at a heightened level of urgency but in solitude themselves.

Bullock said at the Toronto International Film Festival that spending hours on a sound stage with little but cameras for company was "lonely” and led to a “frustrating, painful isolation.”

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Some of the people behind the movies also hope they lead to a degree of difficult self-scrutiny for those watching their films.

Ridley Scott, whose Oct. 31 release "The Counselor” follows a man (Michael Fassbender) who finds himself stuck, figuratively, on a dangerous island of sorts after a drug-smuggling plan goes violently awry, said he saw in his movie a painful reminder of what can happen when a human being sees himself as isolated from people and consequences.

“It's to do with how intelligence and arrogance can lead to disaster," Scott said in an interview. "People don’t really mean to get into something dangerous and then they do, and suddenly they can’t get out of it.” He added: “Movies like this are cautionary tales. They're more than cautionary tales. They're big [blaring] warning signs."

Times staff writer Rebecca Keegan contributed to this report.


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